Patchy rainfall in Malawi's tobacco fields signals a difficult harvest season ahead for the farmers gathering the country's "green gold", but even greater storms could be about to break over an industry coming under increased international pressure to reform its child labour practices.
Tobacco accounts for 11% of the country's GDP and more than 60% of its export earnings, but the low prices that farmers receive from dealers mean many are highly reliant on child labour, a practice that deprives children of their education and ultimately fuels the cycle of poverty. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) sets the minimum age for employment at 14 in less-developed countries.
On 1 November 2019, the US restricted imports of tobacco from Malawi. Its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency issued a withhold release order on tobacco and products containing tobacco from Malawi, meaning that the products will be detained at all US ports of entry. In a statement, the agency said that the action was taken on the basis of information that "reasonably indicates the tobacco from Malawi is produced using forced labor and forced child labor".
Companies that can offer proof their products are not made in whole or part by child labour or other forced labour will still be able to import their produce, but such restrictions will undoubtedly have an impact on tobacco growing in Malawi.
Law firm threatens action
In a separate development at the end of October 2019, London-based law firm Leigh Day announced that it was preparing a class action on behalf of thousands of Malawian children and their families to demand compensation from British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the world's largest cigarette makers, for "unjust enrichment" from the alleged use of child labour in the country.
In a statement, the firm said that it had sent a pre-action letter to BAT, and that if no satisfactory response were received it would take action in the High Court. It said that the children and their families accuse BAT of making huge profits from leaves picked by tenant farmers who are "effectively forced to work for very little pay under fear, duress and false pretences".
Local dealers buy the tobacco and sell it on to the big firms such as BAT, and the latter, says Leigh Day, effectively determine the price. The law firm asserts that the tenant farmers receive so little for their produce that they have "no option but to rely on their children to work". In the last season...